What's needed for city school improvement to continue

With ongoing support and a relentless focus on instruction, Alonso can right this ship

August 15, 2011|By Kalman R. Hettleman

School bells will be ringing in the city in a couple weeks. But for whom — for what students and their prospects of school success — will the bells be tolling? What lies ahead in the upcoming school year?

There are reasons to be uneasy. Recent stories report past cheating on tests, a dip in test scores, and churning of principals. Mayoral candidates criticize and pretend to have simple solutions. The optimism that grew during the just-completed first four years of the superintendency of Andrés Alonso seems on the wane.

The optimism was hard earned and well deserved. In my view, no urban school system in the country has made more progress than Baltimore over the past four years. A new culture of no-excuses and high expectations has been put in place. Model union contracts have been signed with minimum confrontation. Students have unprecedented school choice, including a tempting array of charters and other innovative schools. Many new and promising teachers and principals are starting to find their way. And test scores, despite the drop last year, have still risen impressively.

Still, most students are not meeting high national standards of academic proficiency. And the urban environment — of broken homes, blighted neighborhoods, and bleak hopes — that makes the task of schooling so difficult hasn't changed for the better in Baltimore (or other big cities across the nation).

So what's the prognosis for city school kids? And for that matter, since Baltimore schools under Mr. Alonso are national trailblazers, what is the hope for urban school reform generally?

Sorry, but no one knows the answer to these questions. No big-city school system in the country has managed to enable a majority of its students to meet high standards, and given the environmental obstacles, no one knows what high ground can be reached. Still, we know for sure that schools can do better. And Baltimore is well positioned under Mr. Alonso to continue to lead the way.

Here are markers for what it will take.

•Will Mr. Alonso keep his feet on the ground? Meaning, will he continue to spurn other job offers and stay the course. The course, from all we know, is five to 10 years to see if the seeds of change take full root.

•Will his support from the school board, state department of education, political establishment and community hold? So far, so good. And it will likely last if Mr. Alonso, despite his impatient, full-throttled style, continues to not overreact to criticism. His political skills are one of the secrets of his success. But he must stay open. Public support is fickle. Ask Buck Showalter … and big-city school superintendents tend to have shorter tenures than big-league baseball managers.

•Will next spring's NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) test scores show student progress? State tests, like Maryland's, are not as demanding or reliable. NAEP is a much better national barometer.

•Will Sonja make her mark? The biggest key to future progress is instruction. And Sonya Brookins Santelises is the chief academic officer who has the primary task of making it happen. She seems to have the right stuff. On the job a little more than one year, she has begun to build a stronger instructional infrastructure from near scratch — including staff training, clearer academic expectations, well-calibrated interventions for struggling learners, and monitoring of classroom teaching.

•Will the educational barbarians storm the gates? In my 2010 book on national urban school reform, I attributed Mr. Alonso's effectiveness to the fact that he was positioned in the middle, between the warring educational barbarians of the ideological progressive left and conservative right. Hopefully, this ongoing warfare — for example, in the current federal fight over reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act — will not interfere with Mr. Alonso's balanced approach.

OK, these are a lot of "ifs." And these days, when our nation has lost its political will and way, it's hard not to be pessimistic about any public undertaking, much less beleaguered public schools. Still, there are reasons to be optimistic that the city school system will continue to climb the heights of school reform. Let's hope so, for the sake of our schoolchildren and for the future of public education. Our kids have much to learn — and so do national school reformers.

Kalman R. Hettleman, a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary, is the author of the book "It's the Classroom, Stupid: A Plan to Save America's Schoolchildren." His e-mail is khettleman@comcast.net.

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